The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Potawatomi Leadership Program brings together a cohort of eight to 10 young Tribal members for a six-week summer internship designed to help students discover meaningful connections with their family and history. During this time, they learn about the culture, governance and business operations of CPN and develop leadership skills to carry them through their academic and professional lives.
This year’s PLP is scheduled for Friday, June 10, 2022, to Saturday, July 23, 2022. Applications are open through April 1, 2022, at plp.potawatomi.org.
PLP advisor and Department of Education Director Tesia Zientek sat down with the Hownikan to talk about how the program has developed over its nearly 20-year history and what she is most looking forward to about this year’s program.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation established the Potawatomi Leadership Program in 2003. Members of the Tribe’s Business Committee realized that the Nation awarded more Tribal college scholarships than ever before; however, many of those scholarship recipients understood little about their Tribe or its operations.
Zientek said that disconnect came “through no fault of their own, (but) as a result of historical policies, geographic isolation and assimilation efforts.”
Nevertheless, it presented cause for concern. Knowing that the future leaders of the Tribe come from the youth, and that the vitality and continuance of the Nation depends on knowledgeable and engaged leaders, CPN initiated the Potawatomi Leadership Program as an investment in the Tribe’s younger generation and future.
“Who’s going to enter Tribal leadership when this round of leaders exits?” Zientek asked. “And will those future leaders have the tools and the knowledge about their Tribe to be successful leaders? … Are we doing what we need to prepare our next generation of leaders?”
The PLP team works to improve the program every year, developing it into a robust and dynamic experience. The CPN Department of Education and Tribal leadership select eight to 10 promising young Tribal members for an immersive experience at Tribal headquarters each summer.
Zientek said the program used to be quite long — about 10 to 12 weeks. Students used to stay at St. Gregory’s University in nearby Shawnee, which closed its doors in 2017. At that time, the program largely involved shadowing the various departments within Tribal administration, as well as several cultural elements and opportunities for reflection.
Within a few years, CPN shortened the program to the six-week model that exists today to accommodate as many Tribal members from around the country as possible without interfering with varying university schedules. The program also moved to the Sharp House, a spacious property owned by CPN located near the powwow grounds and central to Tribal operations.
Staff focus on improving the curriculum year after year. In order for students to get a more in-depth understanding of the governance and economic structures of the Tribe, the program has been shaped around a number of elements. They spend time with Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett, Vice-Chairman Linda Capps, Tribal legislators and CPN departments; visit the Tribal enterprises; make cultural connection through language classes, ceremonies, traditional crafts and dance lessons; and complete an intensive leadership training curriculum designed to help them identify and hone their strengths, passions and skills.
Participation in the Potawatomi Leadership Program presents a unique opportunity for connection to the Tribe. It allows for thorough, on-the-ground experience of what it takes to keep the Tribe running and moving forward, but it also provides students an opportunity to connect with peers.
Many students who attend the program start out not knowing much about their relationship to the Tribe except that they are enrolled, Zientek said.
“The PLP gives them an opportunity to be around peers their own age and really explore that. … We do a weekly talking circle where they get to really unpack a lot of the ideas and experiences (that they have). … So they’re really starting to understand that they are, in fact, Potawatomi,” she said.
Students learn about their family history and understand their connection to the Tribe that way, as well. Some even discover they are sitting next to cousins or relatives they had never met.
For Zientek, the most impactful moments while working with PLP have been when she sees “a student who comes in who just really does not understand what it means (to be Potawatomi) and where they fit in and (see) them leave here on fire with their identity and calling home to share with their siblings and their parents. Because a lot of them have questioned whether they should claim that identity, and they’re starting to understand how they can express that in their daily lives.”
PLP participants learn about their history and make contributions of their own to the Tribe and its future. The PLP staff, as well as Tribal employees across departments and enterprises, learn from the students through their interactions throughout the course of the program.
“We ask them what they want to see the program do, what they want to see the Nation do. They have these conversations with leadership about what they want to see,” Zientek said.
Students also impact the Tribe more formally, working in pairs to design and pitch a practical project for the development of the Tribe. Past projects have ranged from recycling programs to educational materials to writing a Potawatomi drum song.
Whether or not the projects quickly come to fruition, Zientek said, each one “sits itself in the back of Chairman and Vice-Chairman and the legislators’ minds.”
Alumni also continue to influence the Tribe well after their completion of the program. Training future CPN leaders remains the PLP’s central goal, and the Tribe sees the years of development and investment pay off as alumni return to work for the Nation years later. Others influence their communities while still in college.
“There have been, gosh, at least three students that I can think of off the top of my head who started up Native American student associations at their university because there wasn’t one previously,” Zientek said. “There have been … students who have decided to go into a certain field of graduate study because they want to somehow give back to their fields in helping Natives.”
Counselors for the PLP are selected from alumni, paying forward the investment the Tribe has made to cohorts that come after them. As an invaluable part of the PLP team, counselors always help transform the program for the better.
“They can tell us, ‘This is what it’s like from this side, and it works really well,’ or ‘It doesn’t work.’ But I really think that they don’t always get the recognition that they deserve of shaping the program to be what it is,” Zientek said.
This year’s counselor is Braden Bruehl, an alumnus of the 2021 PLP class.
This year, Zientek looks forward to holding the PLP in person again — which has not happened since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Above all, she is excited to meet this year’s class and see their unique impacts on the program and on the Tribe.
“What I want to see is them bringing themselves, as Potawatomi, and helping us continue to grow,” she said.
Eligible applicants must be an enrolled CPN tribal member, 18 to 20 years by the program’s start date, and enrolled in college or vocational school with at least a 3.0 GPA. Students from all over the world have attended the program, from as far away as New Zealand and as close as Tecumseh, Oklahoma.
Applications are due by Friday, April 1, 2022, at 5 p.m. CST. Read more about the Potawatomi Leadership Program and apply at plp.potawatomi.org.
Note: This year’s PLP session is currently scheduled to be held in-person at Tribal headquarters from Friday, June 10 through Saturday, July 23, 2022. The PLP team is monitoring health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic closely, and reserves the right to change to a virtual format. Without exception, accepted students must provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination. Should the format change to virtual, the program dates may also change.